Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • JOHN E. SWEARINGEN (1918-2007)
    JOHN E. SWEARINGEN

     

    BY LEON THOMSEN

    JOHN ELDRED SWEARINGEN, one of the giants of the American petroleum industry of the twentieth century, died September 14, 2007, at the age of 89. At his retirement in 1983, he had served Standard Oil Company (Indiana), which would become Amoco Corporation, as CEO and chairman of the board for 23 years.

    Swearingen was born September 7, 1918, to John E. Swearingen (Sr.) and Mary Hough Swearingen in Columbia, South Carolina. His father had been blinded in a childhood hunting accident but overcame that inconvenience to become a successful politician (state superintendent of education), farmer, and husband. Swearingen later wrote that, among the scores of world leaders he had known, no one was more remarkable than his father.

    In 1934 at age 16, Swearingen enrolled at the University of South Carolina on scholarship and graduated in 1938, Phi Beta Kappa, with a BS in chemical engineering. Upon graduation he sought a deeper education and selected Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), already one of the academic leaders in chemical engineering.

    After earning an MS in 1939, when the United States was still in the depths of the Great Depression, he eschewed further education to take a paying job with Standard Oil Company (Indiana) at their research center in Whiting. At that time, Standard Oil (Indiana) was primarily a midwestern refining and marketing company.

    The research center, comprising only about 150 people, was housed in an old building near the railroad tracks. With the advent of World War II, the company rapidly reordered its peacetime priorities in order to produce massive amounts of aviation fuel and TNT to support the war effort. As a junior engineer, Swearingen had skills critical to this transformation, so he was not drafted into the military.

    After the war, Standard Oil (Indiana) again had to reorder its priorities, as wartime contracts were abruptly cancelled. Swearingen, by then the leader of a small group of researchers, became interested in the economics related to crude oil, natural gas, and gasoline. He was invited to present his conclusions to the corporate executive committee in Chicago, and this began a rapid ascent through many layers of management.

    He was transferred in 1947 to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to work in Standard Oil (Indiana)’s hydrocarbon exploration and production subsidiary. There he learned about that upstream part of the business by sitting in on the daily exploration strategy meetings without speaking at all but asking his mentors detailed questions afterwards. By 1950 he had learned enough that he was named division manager in Oklahoma City, with 1100 employees, at age 31. And by 1951 he was transferred back to Chicago as Standard Oil (Indiana)’s general manager of production.

    In 1951, Standard Oil (Indiana) was like a large dysfunctional family with a faction-riven management structure and an incoherent corporate strategy. It had lost its momentum due to ethical lapses at the time of the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s and had subsequently pursued a cautious strategy focused on domestic production. Throughout the 1950s, as Swearingen rose rapidly through the ranks of management, these issues were never fully resolved.

    When he became CEO in 1960 at age 42, Standard Oil (Indiana)’s net earnings were about $150 million per year. When he retired on his 65th birthday in 1983, this figure was $1800 million (an average increase of about 20% per year), ranking fifth in the Fortune 500. This growth was primarily accomplished through a major expansion of hydrocarbon exploration and production efforts outside the United States in most of the petroliferous basins around the world, especially in Iran, Egypt, and Trinidad. In 1985 Standard Oil (Indiana) evolved its corporate branding to become Amoco Corporation.

    He was a member of the National Business Hall of Fame, the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers, and (as fellow) of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. The National Academy of Engineering recognized the accomplishments of a chemical engineer turned corporate executive, electing Swearingen to membership in 1969. As Amoco grew, he personally became more visible in Washington and on television as a spokesman for the entire American petroleum industry, particularly as chairman of the National Petroleum Council (1974–75) and of the American Petroleum Institute (1978–79).

    But despite these accomplishments in leading the growth of a massive, technologically intensive corporation, he failed at retirement. In 1984 he was recalled from fishing trout in Wyoming by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to Washington to rescue Continental Illinois Bank, which had gotten itself into deep financial trouble through unwise loans. Despite having no special expertise in banking, Swearingen was able, as chairman and CEO, to stabilize the bank, create an appropriate management structure, and recruit a new cadre of bank executives to carry on following his second retirement in 1987.

    The John E. Swearingen Engineering Center at the University of South Carolina (1987) is one of the largest engineering facilities in the American southeast. His personal and professional memoir, Think Ahead, was published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2004.

    At his death, he was survived by his wife, Bonnie Bolding Swearingen (who passed away on August 2, 2020); two daughters from a previous marriage; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.